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The Dangers of the Common Core

Today, Deborah Meier writes again to Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Dear Leo,

The common-core controversy brings out some important differences in our perspective. That's healthy, but at this moment annoying because it too often pits good people against each other.  And we need enough unity—at the center of our struggle—to prevent the rapid take-over by the privatizers. Like all good revolutionaries, they are moving as fast as they can so that their efforts will be hard to undo. That's why I'm for some way to build the opposition to privatization. Period. But oddly, in this period, federal policy—by our "allies"—is supporting this privatization in ways that make it necessary to fight centralization and fight privatization at the same time. Weird. It calls for a different kind of coalition that joins forces even as we agree to disagree over issues that dis-unite us.

I wonder if common core feels less urgent to secondary school teachers accustomed to the Regents, SATs, etc., as well as teaching 140-160 students a day et al with all that means in terms of naturally tailoring teaching in response to individual students. The Regents were one reason I never thought of going into secondary education, until I met Ted Sizer and found a way around the Regents entirely. I wonder ...

Years ago I had this argument with Gary Nash about the California's history standards (and exam), which he had played a major role in developing. It wasn't a bad curriculum—what you call standards—but I thought that it was misguided, and dangerously so, given how it might play out. 

I like all the points you make about how "close reading" could be a powerful progressive tool. Again, maybe you aren't as aware of how this plays out when rolled backward to 7- and 8-year-olds.  I've seen it, and I'm appalled.  It's now influencing even kindergartens. It's a good example of an idea that should not be prohibited, and (in fact), if I were teaching teens, I'd take up your suggestions!  Yes—it's Habit #1 (What's the evidence?).  But there's a leap you make between "good ideas" to "mandated" ones—aligned from ages 3-18—that worries me.

Two things are wrong with there being a final victory by one or the other "sides" in these longstanding disputes: whole-language vs. phonics theorists,  constructivist vs. traditional math, etc. There are trade-offs that don't need to be so harsh if we become more knowledgeable about both the disputes and what helps kids tackle complicated ideas. We'd discover that some kids need a very structured approach to learning to read, some can't be stopped as long as books are around, and lots are in between. But teachers who know a lot about language and reading, and who are only teaching 15-20 kids have time to observe closely (like close reading!), can take advantage of both. (I'd like to mandate that everyone read Edward Chittenden et al's Inquiry Into Meaning: An Investigation of Learning to Read, Teachers College Press, 2001, with a foreword by me.)  

It's not a complete coincidence that whole-language'ites tend to be on the left and phonics fanatics on the right. But in fact there is merit to both approaches. And there are, indeed, long-range effects (trade-offs) in using one vs. the other approach. It's a dispute that should never be resolved by mandates. 

Learning by experience (including from books) is critical. I learned, for example, why different kids who I thought read equally well filled in different bubbles on standardized tests.  Sometimes the right answerers had good reasons and sometimes bad ones for being "right." It was interesting and mind-blowing for me as a teacher to hear their amazingly different interpretations of the same paragraph. Sometimes I'd realize that the wrong answer was actually better than what I knew to be the right one!

Ditto for math. I grew interested in math for the first time—as a teacher—when the "old" new math was in style.  It coincided with my own children's elementary education and may account for why the three of them love math. In my family of origin math was put down because it was a subject which had one "right answer"! My parents were wrong!

Elevating human judgment is the key, as you and I agree.  I like democracy and vice-versa because it rests on respect for fallible human judgment.  Respecting different ways of tackling the world, including "wrong" ones is not easy, but it's critical.  

And you are right, good judgment shouldn't lead us to assume that close reading requires us to wear blinders about history and context, as well as our own biases and those of the author's. But, alas, it has been "interpreted" that way—not by you. And it's being scripted that way.  And this misunderstanding, this poor interpretation has been mandated.

As long as we see standards as "The Standards" we will face this danger—and especially if who is right/wrong is based on impact on test scores designed by the same people who have mandated the standards. Such tests are either scored by comparing each student to a national "norm" (in percentiles, with 50 percent being grade level) or the new fad of "politically" based norms. Even my beloved National Board for Professional Teaching Standards frankly developed a "political" scoring system that would pass sufficient numbers, as well as fail a sufficient numbers—sufficient enough to make it publicly "credible." There was and is no "scientific" way to confirm our judgment.

If we could separate the issues of standards and standardized testing, that might help.

Undermining the judgment of those closest to the action in favor of those furthest away is dangerous nonsense. An article in the Oct. 8, 2014, issue of Education Week (Pages 1, 14-15) says Chester Finn (of the Fordham Institute) believes parents and those close to the schools are less likely to spearhead the kind of radical overhaul necessary to dramatically improve urban schools. He's right, of course, if the "necessary" reforms are about turning schools into profit-making institutions.

Maybe we disagree about what makes this so politically urgent. Alas, I think The Reformers are moving as rapidly as they can on several fronts, maybe in part to help paralyze their opposition.  They seek changes that make privatization both more efficient (thus profitable) and credible (by having nationally based scores). Each is a piece of their larger plan. The "common core" idea isn't a standalone. 

Is there a democratic way to have our cake and eat it, too: standards without standardization? Maybe a minimalist approach (one page long) to the common core that embraces both the work of "traditionalists" as well as the work of schools like Mission Hill, Urban Academy, Boston Arts, and CPE, democratically implemented .

We need to create a vision of what's possible while we unite—yesterday—over what is disastrous. We need all those unhappy with what's coming rapidly down the pike to press a shared demand that we not turn our kids over to hucksters.   

Deb

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